Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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Photo of the Day, Snowbound Edition

A woman digs out her car in Cambridge, MA. It should be obvious by now that Höðr, the Norse god of winter, is angry with the Northeast and will not release its puny denizens from his grip until they give unto him a glorious offering, preferably some kind of companion hewn from ice. Hey, even Höðr gets lonely sometimes.

On Obama's 'Evolution' on Same-Sex Marriage

In Obama adviser David Axelrod's new book, he reveals that in 2008 the future president did indeed believe in marriage equality, but he was persuaded by Axelrod and others that it would be too risky to say publicly. So he took the standard Democratic position at the time, in favor of civil unions but against marriage rights.

I imagine that exactly no one is surprised by this. And while it isn't an excuse for deception, the decision should be understood in the context of that historical moment, which is something I get into in my Plum Line post today:

The context of Obama's falsehood is important to understand—both his own thinking and the reception his statements on the matter received. In 2008, the Democratic Party was undergoing a rapid change in its approach to same-sex marriage, and the stated positions of almost every candidate were in flux. Four years before, when the issue exploded into national debate after the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized marriage equality (their ruling actually came down in late 2003), Democrats scrambled to come up with a position on an issue many hadn't much thought about before. Most of the presidential contenders came down in support of civil unions but against marriage rights, a position that just happened to be where the median voter was. By 2008, that was still the safest position, and the party platform didn't mention marriage equality except to say that the party opposed the Defense of Marriage Act.

By 2008, everyone seemed to understand that the position all the major Democratic candidates were taking was a temporary way-station on the path to an eventual embrace of full marriage equality. Nobody really believed that was where the party and its representatives were going to stay. Half of Democrats supported marriage equality in 2008—up from 40 percent in 2004—but the public as a whole was not there yet. Support for civil unions was a position that was acceptable both to the party base, who knew it was only a matter of time before their leaders "evolved," and to the general public, which was undergoing its own evolution.

Was all that a spectacle of political cowardice? Absolutely. But it's hard to say that anyone in either party had many illusions about where it would end up. To no one's surprise, by 2012—when a majority of the public now supported marriage equality— the Democratic party platform embraced it, as did nearly every elected Democrat from President Obama on down.

As I note, the Republicans are undergoing their own possibly-sincere evolution on the topic. And I'm really interested to hear from Hillary Clinton to see how she'll describe 2008. Like Obama, she was for civil unions at the time and came out for marriage equality a few years later. 

Is Polarization Barack Obama's Fault?

Yesterday, Vox published its interview with President Obama, in which Ezra Klein asked him about partisan polarization and whether any president can bridge the divide between the parties. While few deny the existence of polarization, Republicans often assert that it is Obama's fault: the politician who came into office pledging to be a uniter has instead forced Americans further apart with his radical presidency and high-handed tactics. If he had governed differently, we might not be so divided.

Before we get to Obama's view on this, at the end of last week, Gallup noted that last year was one of the most polarized in history in presidential approval (defined as the difference between the president's approval among his own party's voters and the other party's voters). Here's the top ten:

One of two things is going on here. Either George W. Bush and Barack Obama produced this effect with their actions — more so than any presidents before them, or at least those from the last 60 years for which we have data — or the political context has evolved to the point that this kind of thing is inevitable.

For his part, Obama believes it's the second. Is that self-serving? Sure. But that doesn't mean it's not true. Here's what he had to say about it:

...a lot of it has to do with the fact that a) the balkanization of the media means that we just don't have a common place where we get common facts and a common worldview the way we did 20, 30 years ago. And that just keeps on accelerating, you know. And I'm not the first to observe this, but you've got the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh folks and then you've got the MSNBC folks and the — I don't know where Vox falls into that, but you guys are, I guess, for the brainiac-nerd types. But the point is that technology which brings the world to us also allows us to narrow our point of view. That's contributed to it.

Gerrymandering contributes to it. There's no incentive for most members of Congress, on the House side at least, in congressional districts, to even bother trying to appeal. And a lot of it has to do with just unlimited money. So people are absorbing an entirely different reality when it comes to politics, even though the way they're living their lives and interacting with each other isn't that polarizing.

Obama has part of the story right. The balkanization of media has an impact—particularly the conservative media, which is much more comprehensive and influential than the liberal media—but it may be more to intensify the feelings of people who were already partisan than it is to hollow out the independent middle. The polarization of Congress that has occurred in recent years is extremely important, but it is only partly a result of gerrymandering. The part that Obama leaves out is the way the civil rights battles of the 1960s began a process of partisan sorting, where the conservative white southerners who had been Democrats moved to the GOP, making the two parties more ideologically distinct. Every step down that road makes the next step easier to take—the fewer liberal Republicans there are left, the harder it is for someone who 30 years ago might have been a liberal Republican to feel comfortable in the GOP, and something similar happens on the Democratic side.

I also think that we can put the media and elected officials together into something we could call the visible elite. The character of that elite—who they are, what positions they take, how they argue, and how they characterize the other side—are apparent to people whether they actually use partisan media or not. Whether you listen to Rush Limbaugh or just read your local paper, you're going to see Republicans saying day after day that whatever Barack Obama is doing is the worst thing any president has ever done, and that he's dismantling our liberties in his effort to turn America into a socialist dystopia. If you're a Republican, the idea of expressing a general approval of Obama becomes almost impossible to contemplate.

It's a cyclical process: More cohesive districts lead to the election of more extreme lawmakers, who not only make substantive compromise less likely but also make the national debate more vituperative, leading partisans to be more emphatic in their dislike of the other party, which makes the election of more extreme lawmakers in cohesive districts more likely, and around we go.

And there's very little this or any president can do about it. Barack Obama has given up trying to compromise with Republicans, but opinions of him were extremely polarized even when he was bending over backwards to try to work with them. Even in his second year in office, when he was still in that let's-all-get-together-and-talk-this-out mode, his approval among Republicans was only 12 percent. What he does is almost irrelevant, and the same is going to be true of his successor.

So is that such a bad thing? Is a president who polarizes necessarily worse than one who doesn't? That's a complex question we may have to answer on another day. But you know who was really polarizing? Abraham Lincoln. Huge polarizer.

Photo of the Day, Cosplay Edition

From the Carnival in Venice. Interestingly enough, this is exactly the outfit I wore to my junior prom. As we slow-danced to the strains of Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight," my date wondered whether it would be necessary to move to another state, or if a different town would be sufficient.

George Wallace's Ghost

My post at the Plum Line today is about a brewing states'-rights battle in Alabama, where the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Roy Moore, has ordered probate court judges in the state not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of a federal court's order, because Moore believes Alabama law is superior to federal law. You may remember Moore, who got removed from that position for defying court orders to uninstall the two-ton Ten Commandments monument he had placed in the court building, then regained the position in a 2012 election. Since the echoes of desegregation are obvious, I took a look back at some of what George Wallace was saying at the time, and came across his 1963 inauguration speech. Here's an excerpt:

Today I have stood, where Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and again down through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny...and I say...segregation now...segregation tomorrow...segregation forever.

Wallace also said, "We give the word of a race of honor that we will tolerate their boot in our face no longer." You see, it was all about freedom. That's the colorful history that sets a context for this argument about whether Alabama should have to follow the tyrannical edicts of the Supreme Court of the United States.